“You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
The line from Ygritte that became a Game of Thrones meme is more true than ever after the season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter,” which confirmed a long-standing theory about Jon Snow’s real parents held by readers of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
Let’s dive in and discuss the particulars and the implications of R + L = J.
R + L = J
The letters above stand for Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon. Until last night, we didn’t really know two of those characters, but we’d heard their names plenty of times in the discussion of events that happened before the timeline of Game of Thrones and the books it’s based on.
At the start of the series, Robert Baratheon is the king on the Iron Throne, with Cersei Lannister as his wife. Eddard “Ned” Stark is Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North; he and his wife Catelyn have five children together. Nearly two decades prior, the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros were fighting a civil war called Robert’s Rebellion. The present-day Stark family includes Jon Snow, who — as far as anyone knows — is Ned’s bastard son, conceived with a random woman during that war.
One of the events that precipitated said rebellion was the abduction of Lyanna Stark by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the elder son of King Aerys II Targaryen. Robert had been betrothed to Lyanna, who was the younger sister of Brandon Stark and Ned Stark. Nobody knows why, but Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna and took her to Dorne. That sounds bad enough, but it was particularly scandalous at the time because of the aforementioned engagement — and because Rhaegar already had two children with his wife, Princess Elia Martell of Dorne.
Brandon and his father, Lord Rickard Stark, went to King’s Landing to demand that Aerys punish Rhaegar, but the ruler instead brutally executed the father and son. (There’s a reason Aerys II came to be known as the “Mad King.”) That led Houses Stark, Baratheon and Arryn to take up arms against the Targaryens. Other houses soon joined the cause, whether by marriages that secured alliances (Tully) or by realizing that the rebels were going to win (Lannister).
The rebels’ victory was secured when the Lannisters turned on the Targaryens, with Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard stabbing the Mad King in the back — hence Jaime’s nickname, “Kingslayer” — after Tywin Lannister sacked the city of King’s Landing. Prior to this attack, Robert had defeated Rhaegar in single combat at the Battle of the Trident.
In the show’s backstory, Ned fought alongside Robert at the Trident and then headed south to Dorne with his friend Howland Reed. At a place called the Tower of Joy, they battled three members of Aerys’ Kingsguard, including the legendary knight Ser Arthur Dayne, the “Sword of the Morning.” (You’ll remember this scene from “Oathbreaker,” this season’s third episode, where Bran saw the fight in a flashback with the Three-Eyed Raven.)
“Why weren’t you there to protect your prince?” Ned asks the Kingsguard, wondering what these knights are doing in the middle of nowhere instead of serving Rhaegar back at the Trident.
Why indeed. Think about it: Wouldn’t the Kingsguard’s duties be to, y’know, guard the king and the royal family — whether it was Rhaegar in battle, or Aerys (along with Rhaegar’s wife and two children) back in King’s Landing?
“Our prince wanted us here,” Ser Arthur Dayne replies.
Ned instantly realizes that Rhaegar may have directed the Kingsguard to protect Lyanna at the Tower of Joy. A brutal battle ensues, and the rebels are only able to defeat the Sword of the Morning — whom Ned later described to Bran as “the best swordsman [he] ever saw” — because Howland Reed stabs Ser Dayne from behind when the knight has Ned reeling.
That was way back in the third episode, and Bran didn’t see the rest of that vision until last night. Ned makes his way up the Tower of Joy to find Lyanna lying in a bloody bed, having just given birth to a boy. Knowing that she will likely die from childbirth, Lyanna entrusts Ned with the child’s care.
“Listen to me, Ned,” Lyanna says. She begins to whisper into his ear, but all we can hear is the phrase “his name is”; if you read her lips, it sure doesn’t look like she mouths the name “Jon.”
“If Robert finds out, he’ll kill him — you know he will,” Lyanna continues. “You have to protect him. Promise me, Ned. Promise me.”
Robert has just spent the past year fighting to overthrow the Targaryens in King’s Landing. He will soon assume the throne with the help of the Lannisters, when Tywin Lannister’s forces sack the city and Ser Gregor Clegane murders Rhaegar’s wife and children. Why would Robert want to kill a boy born to the woman he loves, the woman to whom he is betrothed?
Oh, right: Because the boy’s father is Rhaegar Targaryen, which means the child — as half Targaryen — would have a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne if, say, the rest of his family were dead or otherwise out of the picture. (The show didn’t confirm Rhaegar as Jon’s father, but HBO later did.)
So Ned Stark, who was such an honorable man that it eventually got him killed, fulfilled his sister’s last wish by lying to the world. He brought the baby back to Winterfell, told everyone that the child was his bastard son, and raised the boy as Jon Snow.
Miguel Sapochnik, the director of “The Winds of Winter,” told us all of this with a single camera cut, transitioning directly from the baby’s face to Jon Snow — who looked just as gobsmacked as the rest of us.
OK, so Jon Snow’s parents are Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. What does that mean?
Let’s consider the immediate implications first.
The episode cut from baby Jon Snow to his present-day counterpart, who was in the midst of a conference at Winterfell with the other houses of the North. In the previous episode, “The Battle of the Bastards,” forces led by Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Lyanna Mormont and Davos Seaworth — with a clutch assist from Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and the knights of the Vale — defeated Lord Ramsay Bolton and retook the castle of Winterfell.
The Northern houses are at first reluctant to serve Jon Snow; as an illegitimate son in Westeros, he cannot claim lands or titles. No one in the room knows where Bran Stark or Arya Stark are, or if they’re even alive. So as far the houses are concerned, the only living Stark heir is Jon’s half sister Sansa, and indeed, Jon had previously told her that she should rule as the Lady of Winterfell.
Then Lyanna Mormont pledges her clan’s loyalty to Jon Snow. The other houses are inspired to follow suit, and they rally behind the bastard of Winterfell as the new King in the North.
“I don’t care if he’s a bastard,” Lyanna shouts. “Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins!”
Except it doesn’t. If the Northern houses initially balked at making a Stark bastard the King in the North, they sure won’t be happy once they find out that Jon Snow’s claim to that position — as the son of a woman who was never Lady of Winterfell, even if she was a Stark — is even less legitimate than they thought.
The bigger deal is that Jon Snow now has a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne of Westeros, since he is the only living grandson of the last Targaryen king. And in season 7, we learned that he’s not actually a bastard: Rhaegar’s marriage to Elia Martell was annulled by the High Septon so he could elope with Lyanna. This fulfills the hints in the books and on the show that the two actually loved each other — that he didn't abduct her or rape her, but rather, that she went with him willingly — and it makes Jon a rightful heir to the throne.
The other major character on Game of Thrones with Targaryen blood is Daenerys Targaryen, who is Rhaegar’s sister and Aerys’ only daughter. (You may remember that Aerys’ arrogant middle child, Viserys, got himself killed by Khal Drogo back in the first season.)
If you can do the genealogical math, you’ve figured out that Daenerys is Jon Snow’s aunt, which sets up all kinds of fascinating possibilities for the resolution of this story.
Cersei Lannister has just assumed the Iron Throne herself, after eliminating essentially all of her enemies in King’s Landing with one fell swoop: using Aerys’ stores of wildfire to blow up the Sept of Baelor with the High Sparrow, the Sparrows, and both Margaery Tyrell and Loras Tyrell in it. With her third and only remaining child, King Tommen Baratheon, having killed himself upon realizing what his mother wrought, Cersei has nothing left to live for except her beloved brother Jaime. Well, him and the Iron Throne.
At the same time, in Game of Thrones’ 60th episode, the Mother of Dragons finally left Essos after spending six seasons amassing three armies (the Dothraki horde, the Second Sons and the Unsullied) and a massive fleet of ships (thanks to the Greyjoy siblings Theon and Yara) — not to mention three full-grown dragons — for her planned conquest of the Seven Kingdoms.
Daenerys has Tyrion Lannister at her side as Hand of the Queen, along with Varys, who has secured an alliance with some fellow Lannister haters: the recently bereaved Lady Olenna Tyrell, plus Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes of Dorne.
Winterfell is once again in Stark hands — of a sort — as the seat of power in the North. Now that winter has arrived, King Jon Snow and Lady Sansa Stark will continue to marshal all the forces at hand to prepare for the Night King and the White Walkers. Samwell Tarly is studying at the Citadel to become a maester, in hopes of learning something that could help the war effort. Lady Brienne of Tarth, who is sworn to protect Sansa, is likely making her way toward Winterfell with her squire, Podrick.
In the meantime, the other surviving Stark children are also in or near Westeros. Bran’s undead uncle, Benjen Stark, left him and Meera just north of the Wall. Arya is probably fleeing the Twins, having just slit Lord Walder Frey’s throat and baked his two sons into a meat pie. Perhaps she’ll run into the exiled Melisandre, who is one of the names on her kill list, as she heads toward Winterfell?
Many fans assume that Daenerys and Jon will marry, and then unite the Seven Kingdoms to face the existential threat to Westeros that the White Walkers represent. Being related might complicate things for them, but then, the Targaryens are no strangers to incest; Aerys’ wife, Rhaella, was his sister. But no matter how Game of Thrones plays out, the story will presumably come down to Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen — after all, the tale is A Song of Ice and Fire, and Jon, as half Stark and half Targaryen, represents them both.
Correction: Lord Walder Frey was murdered at his home, the Twins, not Riverrun. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.
Update (June 29): Days after the episode aired, HBO confirmed in a post on the Making Game of Thrones blog that Rhaegar Targaryen is indeed Jon Snow's father. We've edited the article to reflect this.
Update (April 15, 2019): We’ve edited the article to reflect the latest developments on Rhaegar and Lyanna — most notably, that they were legally married before Jon Snow was born, making him a legitimate heir to the Iron Throne.